Talents compared to skills of in-house lawyers

Those who manage in-house lawyers sometimes interchange the terms “talent” and “skill.” They have, however, different meanings and it is our loss to blur them.

“Talent” concerns innate abilities, along the lines of a melodious voice, athleticism, humor, intelligence, and spatial sensibility. Bestowed at birth, perhaps genetically programmed, plastic under encouragement (Mozart’s father) or suppression (Taliban girls), talent distinguishes people as a gift from birth.

“Skills” we can deliberately learn or less consciously absorb. Any corporate lawyer can become a skilled writer who takes the time to study grammar, composition, and style, makes an effort to edit and improve, reads quality prose, and generally tries to increase writing prowess. Other skills develop less deliberately but more by osmosis. If you watch someone experienced select jury members, and if you attend to the questions asked and the objections made, your skill should improve. You can’t practice and teach yourself as readily as with writing, but you can absorb the elements that lead to mastery.

“Ability” could be the combination of inherited talent and acquired skill, but I wouldn’t want to push these definitions too far. Ability also has to do with perseverance, resiliency, and other personality characteristics.

When hiring, a general counsel can barely assess talent, given the superficiality of interview processes. Much of that relies on the filter of college attended, law school graduated, and job history. Skills can be tested, but few do so as part of the interview process.

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